Ringing in 2008 with Top Shelf’s Brett Warnock



Detail from “The Top Shelf Boys” by Eddie Campell. Warnock is on the right.

BRETT WARNOCK IS CO-PUBLISHER OF TOP SHELF PRODUCTIONS, heading up Top Shelf’s Portland half. Before teaming up with co-publisher, Chris Staros, Warnock published under the name Primal Groove Press, producing work from a number of minicomics artists and launching the Top Shelf name in the form of the Top Shelf anthology. A former bartender, Warnock took the name “Top Shelf” from his other profession.

In the ten years since Warnock and Staros formed Top Shelf, they’ve gained a reputation for producing high quality material in very attractive packages (many of them designed by Warnock). The two have published a number of hit books, such as Goodbye, Chunky Rice, Blankets, Lost Girls, much of James Kochalka and Jeffrey Brown’s catalogs, Box Office Poison, the Owly series, and more.

When book distributor LPC filed for bankrupcy in 2002, leaving Top Shelf in the lurch, the comics industry and fandom rallied around them, ordering tens of thousands of dollars worth of books directly from Top Shelf and allowing Warnock and Staros to get back to business the next day. Recently, The Surrogates became the first film based on a Top Shelf book to be fast-tracked for production and will star Bruce Willis. Top Shelf has also recently become Alan Moore’s primary publisher of books and comics in America, and will be producing the next volume of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

I talked to Warnock at his home in Northeast Portland on New Year’s Eve, 2007.

Wright Opinion: To start with, what were some of the first comics you were into?

Brett Warnock: When I was a little, little kid, like single digits, I was reading Richie Rich and Casper the Friendly Ghost and stuff like that. Classic Harvey Comics, kids’ stuff obviously. And then I actually got into pulp science fiction paperback novels before I got into comics. I was reading Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan and the John Carter of Mars series, all his pulpy stuff, the Pellucidar/Savage Land-type stuff, and Robert E. Howard’s Conan. I was completely into the Neal Adams covers on the Tarzan books and the Frazetta covers on the Conan books. I loved the content obviously, but the covers were really starting to rock my world and I think that’s what got me into the art angle.

X-Men #112.

Then when I was eleven or twelve, my dad bought me a comic book at a local grocery store in Gresham [Oregon]. It was X-Men #112, right at the beginning of the peak of the Byrne/Claremont run on X-Men and it ended on a total cliffhanger when Magneto captures the X-Men and he’s got them flying in a circus wagon up in the air and he takes them to his volcano lair and he’s got them trapped. And at the time I didn’t understand serialized comics, so I just thought, “God, that sucks!” So they’re trapped in this limbo forever. And then life happened, a few, three years go by. I happened to be at the spinner rack at Plaid Pantry and there was X-Men #134. Dark Phoenix is crumpling the logo into shards, and that was the book that hooked me, boom. I started reading the Claremont/Byrne X-Men run, Frank Miller’s Daredevil and the Wolfman/Perez Teen Titans from #1. Those three books pretty much cemented my fandom years, my holy trinity of comics right there.

WO: So those were pretty much your early favorites?

BW: Oh, absolutely. And sadly I think those three books at the time were the apex of what was available, so everything I read thereafter was a little bit of a letdown, but I was so addicted to comics that I just devoured everything anyway. I was mostly an art guy[, but] old schools guys like Ditko and Kirby and Buscema just creeped me out. I didn’t get it at all.

WO: I hear that a lot.

BW: Yeah, it took me years of developing my palate to understand it and really get into those guys.

WO: A lot of people talk about, “And then I discovered girls,” or “Then I went to college,” and they have a break of a couple years. Did you ever have a break like that?

BW: I didn’t have a break during the college years, but it was a secret habit. I would buy comics at the comics shop near the University of Oregon and I’d read them at night on my own time. I’d stick them in a drawer, and whenever I went home for a break, I’d take them back to my longboxes and file them away.

WO: Did you have a roommate that you hid them from?

BW: No, my roommate knew of my proclivities and my love for comics and he didn’t really care, but I just didn’t wear it on my sleeve like I do now. It wasn’t a badge of honor, because again, I think that at this point in the mid-‘80s, and through to the early ‘90s, what we call mainstream comics were at a total nadir. It was just a really pathetic time, and that was part of the confluence of events that led me to indie comics.

WO: What were some of the first indie comics that you read?

BW: Well, again, I was living in Eugene, and I was definitely lefty-leaning, politically minded for the first time, really starting to become civically aware. And there was a bookstore called Hungry Head, which was a progressive bookstore that sold communist propaganda. I’m sure that [the owner] was on an FBI watch list, no doubt about it, and his was the first store I ever encountered that stocked minicomics and zines and I totally got into that because my own college training in the arts, combined with my love for comics, came together and I developed a love for printed matter. The zines were at their peak in the early ‘90s, before the blogosphere, which has basically killed the print zine. If it hasn’t killed it, then it’s crippled it pretty severely. And with mail order minicomics, I thought, “Wow, I can do this.” It was a real eye-opening, field-leveling phenomenon. Anyone could partake and become part of the public discourse by self publishing at Kinko’s and whatnot.

And so I discovered zines and and I discovered minicomics, and began corresponding with guys like James Kochalka and Tom Hart, Ed Brubaker, Megan Kelso, a lot of the people in Seattle, David Lasky and people like that. And at the comic book shop I used to frequent, which I won’t disparage now––that’s a whole other story how lame this shop was––he had a handful of indie comics that were just stuck in the back, in the corner, literally in the back corner, in the darkest corner, on a little tiny shelf. He had games and games and figurines and toys and mainstream comics galore and then a teeny little tiny rack for independent comics.

Hate #9.

In any case, I discovered Hate––I want to say Hate #10 or Hate #9. It had Stinky and all the guys in the band, kind of a wallpaper-y design on a white background. And I discovered Eightball and the Drawn and Quarterly anthology and David Mazzucchelli’s oversized Rubber Blanket. Brilliant books. And those four books are what pushed me into the love of indie comics. I’ve never abandoned mainstream superhero spandex power fantasy comics. I still love the genre of superheroes and I think there’s validity in the genre––it’s modern mythology, of course.

WO: Have you read Soon I Will Be Invincible, the recent superhero prose novel?

BW: I have not. I’ve got it, but not yet.

WO: I actually just started it. It’s really interesting to see the superhero from the prose point of view, because you’re so used to just seeing the multicolored costumes and things, so to have somebody describe them and describe what it’s like to see something like a human being with wasp wings and how creepy that is, it’s really interesting from that point of view.

BW: Right. Real visceral. I’m looking forward to reading that, that’s really interesting. Because Tom De Haven’s done a cycle of books that are rooted in comics, Dugan Underground, Funny Papers, and the most recent one, It’s Superman–I haven’t read that one yet.

In any case, discovering Hate, Eightball, D&Q anthology and Rubber Blanket tipped me over the edge and that’s what gave me the impetus to think that I could do this myself, combined with my love of the zines and the minicomics.

WO: You originally wanted to draw your own comics, right?

BW: I did, and the first comic that I published was a comic that I drew.

WO: What was that called?

Page 10 from Warnock’s minicomic,
Stream of (Un)Consciousness.

BW: It was called Stream of (Un)Consciousness and it was completely not… it was more like an art school project, heavily rendered, heavily drawn illustrations. I basically drew it on the clock at my job tending bar when it was slow. I was a real noodler, tons of detail. I wasn’t a great storyteller. I actually did draw a handful of very short strips and submitted some to Drawn and Quarterly, actually. I wonder if––there’s no way he’s got those submissions anymore, and he probably doesn’t remember my name, and I never even got any feedback, but they were not that good.

WO: Do you remember who some of your artistic influences were?

BW: Well, maybe part of the reason I never fulfilled that desire to be a comic book artist is that I just didn’t have the chops, didn’t have the skills. None of my influences, none of my fan favorites as a child surfaced in any way, which to me says that I just didn’t have very good skills, just didn’t have a very good command. And furthermore, I didn’t have very much to say. I wasn’t a great writer. The comics I did were good, they weren’t great by any stretch. They had a point, but that was it. I said my piece in comics form, but I just don’t have… No, there’s no influences that really stuck as an artist and I think, again, the influence of Drawn and Quarterly especially was realizing that the act of creating the comic book that I drew was much more fun than actually drawing the comic. And that’s when I realized, “Fuck drawing comics, I’m gonna make comics.”

WO: So, what specifically was the artistic training you mentioned earlier?

BW: In school?

WO: Yeah.

BW: Very broad, very general. Design courses, fundamental courses, plus just me getting stoned and drawing on my own time. That was its own education. But you gotta understand, I think this is still true in art departments, but especially then in the mid- to late-‘80s, if you were a comic book fan and you made that known in the art department, in any classes, painting classes, illustration classes, whatever, boy that was frowned upon. That was so not a legitimate form of art. It’s funny, I always thought that when and if comics broke into the college scene, it would be through the art department and it’s not, it’s been through the lit department, and that’s been a surprise for me. Looking back, it makes sense, because it’s about stories and storytelling, not making pictures, per se.

WO: How exactly did drawing your own comics transition into becoming the Top Shelf anthology? Who did you first talk to?

Top Shelf #1,
cover by Warnock.

BW: I drew the cover and my friend Wayne Shellabarger inked the cover for the first issue, but me drawing comics really had nothing to do with it. Essentially, the anthology was created because I was a big fan of the Drawn and Quarterly anthology and I think I had discovered the second volume of Spiegelman’s RAW magazine, not the big ones, but the smaller digest ones.

WO: The ones that are about the same size as Maus?

BW: Yeah. And I was reading those and devouring those and loving the contents, but at the same time, a lot of the cartoonists that I was really digging and felt more kinship to were the minicomics guys, the Seattle guys, Kochalka, some of the Austin guys, that weren’t getting published in any of the anthologies, like somehow they weren’t perceived as worthy of inclusion. And I thought, that’s pretty fucked up, because these guys are really good. And so I thought, I’ll make the magazine that’s gonna give these guys a venue to get broader notice than just minicomics through the mail. So that was the impetus to start the anthology. And I have to say, I really miss the anthology. That was probably my favorite project I’ve ever done.

WO: What was the format of that like?

BW: Well, the first four were just half-legal, 7” wide by 8½” tall, a square pulled up a little tiny bit, which was a common minicomic size beside the standard digest. You had 8½” by 11” folded in half and then the 8½” by 14” folded in half. It was easy, it was inexpensive to print. I did four issues that were saddle-stitched and then issue five was the first book that I ever published that had a spine on it, and that would have been my last book that I ever published had [Chris] Staros not intervened and asked me if I wanted a business partner.

The anthology’s latest incarnation.
Cover by Tomer Hanuka.

WO: So you continued the anthology for awhile after your partnership started?

BW: Oh, yeah. We did six, seven, On Parade, Under the Big Top and then Asks the Big Questions, so we did several more.

WO: Did you publish anything else, other than the Top Shelf anthology before meeting Chris?

BW: Yeah. I did some work with Cherise Mericle, who’s done some kids’ books that I see all over the place. Ulana Zahajkewycz, who did our ten year anniversary poster. Rick Pinchera, who used to do a comic in the [Portland alternative weekly] Willamette Week back in the day. A book of Wayne Shellabarger’s posters, mostly for the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, called I’m Totally Helpless. Not a ton. I did a smattering of minicomics, but mostly it was the anthology and a few things here and there. It wasn’t until Chris came on board that we both really ramped up our ambition.

WO: So before that, would you consider yourself to have always been a small publisher or was there a point where you were a self-publisher and became a small publisher?

BW: I think that semantically in my mind a self-publisher is someone who publishes themselves and once I published other people, I thought of myself as a publisher. Not necessarily an important or player publisher, but I always knew from the minute that I published the first book that I didn’t draw, even if it was completely naive I knew that it was destiny. I knew that, “this is what I want to do, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to make it happen and go full time, but this is what I wanna do more than anything is publish comics.”

WO: So how did you and Chris hook up?

BW: At the same time that I was doing the anthology and the smattering of smaller projects, Chris was doing a magazine called The Staros Report. His first one was literally an 8½” x 11” folded newsletter, the next one was a digest sized minicomic basically. That evolved into the 1996 magazine, which was very legitimate, had an Eddie Campbell cover and a big feature Eddie Campbell interview. And I loved it, because in it he was basically the Factsheet 5 of comics, meaning it was really a propaganda thing for what he thought was good. Instead of him saying, “I’m gonna review everything and if it’s bad, I’m gonna shitcan it and if it’s good I’m gonna prop it up,” his philosophy was, “Why give ink to the bad stuff? I’m just gonna talk about what I like and what I think is good and why it’s important.” And I loved it!

And he loved everything ranging from Maus and Eightball and Hate to V For Vendetta, Watchmen, and superhero stuff. He didn’t belong to any camp. And even back then, the camps were something that I just loathed. And these exist to this day: Indie vs. mainstream, indie vs. mainstream!

WO: The Comics Journal vs. Wizard?

BW: Totally. And I devour both of them with equal glee, to this day. In fact, just last week on new comics day I picked up the new Wizard and the new Comics Journal. And I love them both. And Chris shared that philosophy of, it doesn’t matter what camp it’s in, if it’s good, it’s good. I was so excited by that magazine that I sent him a care package of all of the stuff I had in print at that point in time with a cover letter that said, “I love what you’re doing and I love the fact that you don’t play to these stupid camps.”

The Staros Report 1997.
Cover by Gary Spencer Millidge.

And then the next issue came out of The Staros Report, and then maybe we met at San Diego that year, which was ‘96. I think maybe we met in person, and really got along and then Staros Report ‘97 came out. That was the one that had the Gary Spencer Millidge cover, the Strangehaven guy. The feature was a Los Bros. Hernandez/Love and Rockets overview. He printed my letter in the letter section and he said, basically, “This is the letter I’ve been waiting for. I’ve wanted to hear this for so long. Someone from either ‘camp’ that derided the idea of these divisions.” And so we really hit it off. That was like the Spring of ‘97, then SPX ‘97 and I’d seen him at San Diego again; I’d seen him here, I’d seen him there. We’d probably met in person four, five times at this point, and become really good friends, mostly through email and letters.

I was staying at Chris Oar’s house, who with Greg Bennet was one of the guys that really made SPX what it was, and Chris Staros shows up. Less than five minutes after being there, Chris comes up to me and says, “Hey, I got an idea. How would you like to have a business partner?” And I thought about it for all of ten seconds and I said, “Hell, yeah!” Because again, I had done issue five of the anthology and I was out of money. I had no idea what I was gonna do. I was so delusionally in love with the idea of publishing that I didn’t think in my mind that I was done, but looking back, I was done. I had no more money, I didn’t know what to do from there.

So that’s how our partnership started. Sadly, Chris stopped doing The Staros Report. There’ve been a lot of friends over the years clamoring, “Do another Staros Report, do another Staros Report.”

WO: Is he just too busy with Top Shelf?

BW: He’s too busy, and The Staros Report was predicated on his junkie habit of reading comics. Well, now that he’s a publisher of comics, he doesn’t have the time to read comics that we don’t publish. And so be it.

WO: Inside the books, you’re both referred to as “publisher,” as co-publishers. How do your responsibilities break down?

BW: Well, that broke down and it’s evolved to some extent, but even from day one we had this very, very strong division of labor, because it was so natural. One of the things that attracted Chris to my efforts prior to our joining forces was, he just loved the packaging and the identity, the brand image that I had created for the company, vis-a-vis the book design. At the same time, his own design abilities, his sensibilities, he knew what he liked, but he had no design chops of his own. What he did have was a business acumen, the ability to crunch numbers, to balance spreadsheets and books and write checks and calculate royalties, stuff that made my head hurt. So it was a natural division of duties. He did all the books, the numbers, anything that had to do with math or calculating, anything like that. All things visual, production, design, that all became mine. And to this day that’s still a pretty clear split on those levels.

What we’ve done over the years is we’ve both taken on different continually evolving shared responsibility in publicity and marketing, which are kind of nebulous anyway, those titles. What does a publicist do? What does a marketing person do? There’re books and books and books out there that still don’t have a single definition. So we’ve shared those over the years, and that’s why we brought on Rob [Venditti] and that’s why we brought on Leigh [Walton].

WO: I was going to ask about that, actually, because you went from three to four people recently with Leigh. Was it that now you had the resources to do that or did it seem like now was the time to focus on things like outreach a bit more?

BW: Well, I’ll take that a step back actually, to when we brought in Rob. We brought in Rob after Black Tuesday and the Twelve-Hour Miracle. And at that point, Chris had been full-time [at Top Shelf] for a year or two, and I was still working full-time at the bar. Full-time restaurant is about 30-35 hours. It’s a little more burnout than a desk job, but it’s still fewer hours on the clock. After that went down and the miracle happened, I told Chris, “All eyes are on us. Our visibility just went through the roof because of this. I think it’s time to bite the bullet and pay me a salary so I can go full-time, too.” And I had no problem with Chris being full-time before me, because he was and does to this day do more hours on the clock than I do. We have very different lifestyles.

And Rob also was very instrumental in getting us over the hump after the Black Tuesday and the Twelve Hour Miracle, with the pack-and-ship. I went full time and it wasn’t long after that that the visibility increased our web orders, and Chris had to bring Rob on, and Rob has been so invaluable, not just as a pack-and-ship guy, but as a copy editor. He’s a phenomenal copy editor.

The Surrogates #4.

WO: And now isn’t his book the first Top Shelf movie?

BW: Yeah, his book that he wrote, The Surrogates, is going to be the first executed Top Shelf film. We’ve had other options and stuff, but nothing’s every parlayed into the real thing.

So that was key. When we brought Rob on, that was to take some of the burden off Chris on pack-and-ship. Because up to then, here’s Chris, a brilliant mind, having to go to the warehouse and be a pack-and-ship grunt, basically, which is not easy or fun, but someone’s got to do it, so Chris was doing it, and Rob helped out immensely on that. Fast forward a few years, our visibility keeps rising, what with Lost Girls and things like this, and it became clear to me, and I was the one pushing for this, that we needed to get a full-time or part-time publicist on board who not only loved comics but had that personality that could go out there and sell ice to an eskimo.

WO: Yeah, I’ve seen Leigh sell. He’s impressive.

BW: He’s very good at what he does. In fact, when I first met Leigh, I thought to myself, “Oh my God, this guy’s so good.” And I was hoping and praying that when he went down to San Diego this last year, that Chris would feel good enough about this guy that he’d say, “Oh, yeah, keep him close, Brett, because who knows what could happen.” I remember Rob came up to me first and said, “Who is this guy?” It was just like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, “Who are these guys?” Rob was astounded, “Where’d you get this guy?” because Leigh was just selling comics hand over fist. And then the next day at San Diego, Chris came to me and said, “Hey Brett, how do you feel about hiring Leigh part-time?”

Because for me, that’s been our weak link, publicity. And it’s the kind of thing that, to keep the trains running on time, you’ve got to take care of production and crunching numbers and this and that first, and publicity and marketing follows if and as you have time, and we just didn’t have the time. Most people think we’re a ten or twelve person company, and we were just faking it the whole way, and so that was the big weak link in our organization. So Chris said that and I’m like, “Yes!” There are some growing pains, but I think Leigh is gonna be a freaking force.

Art by Ulana Zahajkewycz.

WO: Speaking of all the publicity and growth, 2007 was the big ten year anniversary year. Did you expect it to go that far or is that even a question you can answer?

BW: Yeah, it’s pretty difficult to answer, because Chris can sometimes play this a little darker than I do, but in a real sense we just live day-to-day and hope we can live through tomorrow, too, because the marketplace for comics is still just in the toilet. The speculator frenzy crashed the comics market in 1994…

WO: Right around the time I started reading comics, ironically. I got in at the worst moment, somehow.

BW: And that’s right at the time that Chris and I got into the business of comics. So we got in when the market was at the bottom, at the nadir of the industry. Generally, industries like this have big waves and peaks and valleys of flush times and not flush times. You had the black and white boom in the late ‘80s, thanks to the Turtles and companies like Fantagraphics and D&Q and Slave Labor. They really did well because of the black and white boom and bust, because during the boom times, it gave them visibility with all these retailers, and it embedded their brand into the retailers that survived the crash of ‘94, the Image/speculator crash.

Because we got in afterwards, we didn’t have that brand recognition with the remaining retailers, so it’s been a real up-hill struggle, and sadly there’s never been a flush time across the board like those two other boom and bust cycles, the black and white and then the speculator one. So we’ve never been able to ride any industry-wide high. We’ve had our own individual highs and lows. Blankets, awesome. From Hell was a great example. We didn’t publish it proper at the time, but we repped it, and we made a lot of money on it during the time the film came out, and that’s when that distributor, LPC, went bankrupt, and that’s what caused Black Tuesday and the Twelve Hour Miracle. So that was a big high and then a big low, because we didn’t see that money back.

We’ve had a handful of breakout hits. From Hell, Blankets, Jeffrey Brown’s career… I can’t point to any single book [of his] that’s been a Blankets-type phenom, but his work in general. Kochalka, and more recently Lost Girls. Hopefully we’ll break out Matt Kindt and Jeff Lemire.

Did I go off-track? Did I answer your question?

WO: Yes. Though sort of as a follow-up, you were talking about brand identity and the importance of that. Is that a big part of the reason a lot of smaller publishers don’t make it?

BW: I don’t know. That’s a good question. I would think for a lot of smaller publishers who don’t make it, I think they maybe get into the business with really naive expectations on how difficult it is to survive. I think if there’s anything that’s kept us alive, and this completely ties in with the brand identity that we have, is that we don’t do too many books. We don’t do so many books that we’re stretched too thin, and yet neither do we not do enough books. We generally do at least one to two new graphic novels a month, with exceptions, like the late Winter is usually a time that we kind of button down the hatches and just do reprints and stuff. But in general, we’re just visible enough to be out there on a constant basis, and yet we’re not doing too much to stretch ourselves too thin, growing beyond our means. And with what we do put out, I think that there’s a consistency in quality in that Staros, and myself as well, we’re just sticklers for real auteur-type cartooning, and story is huge for us, too, and so if we have a reputation, it’s for handsome-looking books that read and have a real populist aesthetic.

WO: Is that notion of populism similar to what you were talking about earlier, the idea of being in between the two camps?

BW: Yeah, there’re publishers that cater to a more specialized niche, whereas what we’re trying to do are things that have a broader appeal, which some people would say dilutes us, but I don’t think that’s the case at all. Why try and limit our audience, what’s the point in that? So I think that part of our brand is that we’re just trying to tell unique, good stories.

The upcoming Comic Book Artist #7.

WO: Do you think that Comic Book Artist fits in that position between camps as well? Is that why you were interested in becoming Comic Book Artist’s publisher?

BW: Well, CBA certainly fits more in the mainstream camp, but even given that there seems to be a somewhat independent voice in it. Plus Jon [Cooke] has always been keen to give props to alternative cartoonists here and there.

WO: Can you say anything about when we might see Comic Book Artist again?

BW: I’m pretty sure that Jon is almost ready to go to press with his next volume, with a Peter Bagge cover feature.

WO: So, do you have some favorites from over the ten years, favorite moments or comics?

BW: [Long pause]

WO: Or is it just too many to list?

BW: Too many to list. One of my favorite things… A lot of people in comics can’t stand having to do conventions and I love it. Then again, I don’t do more than between five and ten and year, and I think that’s just enough to not get burned out. If I had to do 15-20 like Chris used to do, I’d probably put a gun to my head. The convention circuit is one of my favorite things, because it brings the “family” of comics together under one big roof.

I’m sure that you’ve heard a lot disparaging comments in the elitist camp about the term “Team Comics.” I’ll let the pundits define “Team Comics,” but I always thought it meant more… It is boosterism to a certain extent, but it’s just, “Hey, I’ll give you a hand up, you give me a hand up, let’s pool our resources to make this work.” And a lot of the elitists took that to mean lack of critical thinking. And I think that’s just bullshit. Even the elitists can’t deny the fun they have when they’re surrounded by their peers in a bar, after hours in whatever city, USA, just talking comics and hanging out with their friends in the industry. I don’t think the comics market would exist without the network. I’ve never thought about this like this before. This has just dawned on me right now, but I don’t think the comics industry would exist as we know it if it wasn’t for the network of conventions that we have, because that’s how we all network. It’s literally an invaluable tool, so that’s one of my favorite things over the years.

Authors, I don’t wanna go there, because I don’t want to forget anybody. There’ve been a few gems that I thought were just overlooked like Glenn Dakin’s Abe, but again that’s more of something that I think we knew going in had a limited niche market, but it was just so good we had to do it, no matter if we were gonna make our money back.

WO: I guess that’s a better question, then. What are some of the ones that more people should have read?

BW: Abe by Glenn Dakin is brilliant comics. He was a huge influence on Tom Hart. And Tom Hart’s books––I can’t believe that Hutch Owen never really exploded. The two Hutch Owen books that we published, I think are brilliant.

WO: Those are great.

BW: A lot of people would say, “Oh, that’s just lefty propaganda,” but no, because the character of Hutch Owen skewers players on all sides of all camps, and I love that. I love the absurdity of that. I’m not looking at the Top Shelf library right now, so that’s kind of hard. Those are just a couple quick examples.

WO: One of the more recent pieces of news is Alan Moore coming over to Top Shelf and making you his main American publisher. And Lost Girls comes out in the UK tomorrow, right?

BW: Presumably so. Chris knows more about that than I do. But, yeah, we’ll see what happens. I still don’t think we know definitively what the situation is. We got the clearance from customs, so we’ll see happens. That’s huge for us. It’s really good timing.

WO: So, have you been following everything that’s been happening with The Black Dossier from Wildstorm?

BW: Well, my understanding is that there was copyright issues in Europe with the characters?

WO: With some of it, I guess. They were claiming that the George Orwell’s estate was a problem, that they’re really litigious about uses of 1984.

BW: And so the estate of Orwell doesn’t have the same legal grounds here in the US?

WO: Apparently. I don’t understand copyright law. It’s weird.

BW: That’s very Orwellian.

WO: Yes. Have you had a chance to look at The Black Dossier?

BW: I glanced at it and in fact I kind of buried it in my piles of things to take into trade at Powell’s City of Books because I read that they’re going to do an Absolute Black Dossier with more stuff, so I’m just gonna wait. I never read any of the League until the Absolutes came out and in that oversize format Kevin O’Neill’s art is absolutely mind-bending. So I’m gonna wait. I’m in no hurry.

WO: It’s a lot of fun. It’s definitely a slow read, a dense read with all the text pieces and things, but it’s also just really entertaining. The different styles are actually a lot of fun––it’s not just slow-going literature slog.

BW: Right. And it’s Alan Moore really stretching the boundaries of the medium. It’s very meta. Is it comics? Yeah, but it’s also pulp fiction, text, it’s also this other thing.

WO: There’s the 1984 Tijuana Bible.

BW: Yeah, there’re so many different things, and I think the idea of it, even if it was not a great read, which I hear it is, just the idea alone is so cool that it warrants attention. But that’s Alan Moore. He’s so good.

WO: So what else are you going to have from him after Lost Girls? You’ve got League III, right?

The upcoming League III.

BW: With League, I suspect that, in a best case scenario, I don’t think the first issue’s going to come out until later this year or in 2009. And that’s gonna come out as three mid-size volumes with a thin spine, like the old deluxe format books DC used to do a lot of. That’s gonna be the format for League III.

WO: Is it eventually gonna be done as one book, as a League III hardcover?

BW: Oh, of course.

WO: Is that going to follow the format of the DC ones?

BW: Oh, yeah. Oh, 100% We’ll do a standard size hardcover, I’m sure. And then hopefully if we can get scripts and stuff like that from Alan we’ll do the Absolute. I mean, as a fan, I want to see League III sitting on my bookshelf in the Absolute format next to League I and II. And I’m sure we’ll hire Todd Klein, who did all the design for all the ABC line, to do the packaging and stuff like that. The only difference I want the consumer to see is, here’s the Wildstorm logo vs. the Top Shelf logo. Otherwise I want those to look identical.

WO: So, what else has he got coming out with you?

BW: A book called The Moon and Serpent Bumper Book of Magic. And that’s basically what is called a grimoire, which is a book of spells essentially. And my understanding of this is that it will be all ages, and not just a grimoire, not simply a book of spells, but a book about magic and Alan’s ideas and thoughts on what is magic and the power of words. And clearly, if it’s all ages it’s not gonna be Alister Crowely or anything. It’s not gonna be dark and menacing and disturbing.

WO: It’s got that happy kid with the playing card on the cover.

BW: Yeah.

Promethea was a brilliant rumination on the Kabbalah. I never really knew anything about the Kabbalah until I read Promethea. And the second to last issue, I felt like I was on five hits of acid reading that thing. It was so mind-expanding I couldn’t even believe it. And what I’m suspecting he’s going to do with The Moon and Serpent Bumper Book of Magic is something similar, but on a more all ages level, where he’s explaining maybe the history of this and I think what he wants to do is demystify magic. But the timing is ripe. Look at the popularity of Harry Potter.

WO: And that’s going to have a bunch of different illustrators, right?

BW: Yeah, it’s going to be really across the board, again from my limited understanding. From what I know, no artists have started working on any stories. But, yeah, it’s going to be a potpourri of different artists. And, boy, right after we announced that we were inundated with lots of emails from well-known artists in comics saying, “I want in, I want in, I want in.” But as far as I know, editorially nothing’s been assigned. I don’t even know if anything’s been written, to be honest with you.

But beyond that, I don’t know with Alan Moore. He’s in the new Wizard Magazine, and I haven’t read the issue yet, or the article, but one of the pull quotes said, “Comics is now, I’m afraid, just going to have to be a corner of my working landscape. They’re very dear and it’s a fondly regarded corner, but just one corner of the landscape all the same.”

WO: So, that’s all 2009 and beyond, right?

BW: Yeah.

WO: Well, since we’re doing this on New Year’s Eve, I should definitely ask you what’s happening in 2008.

BW: 2008, we don’t have anything that’s breaking down barriers, but we’ve got some great stuff. We’ve got James Kochalka’s third volume of American Elf, which is his ten-year anniversary of American Elf. He’s been doing the diary for ten years now.

WO: Wow.

BW: We have the third volume in Jeff Lemire’s Essex County trilogy. And Jeff Lemire is a guy who, the critics and the pundits who read him love his stuff. He’s becoming highly praised in critical circles. Now it’s our challenge to break him out to the readership. I feel really compelled, because he is a great, great writer. And even though he’s from Toronto, he has a real Americana style to him. I think that term “Americana” transcends America, because the Heartland I think goes up into the plains of Canada. Really, really brilliant stuff.

We’ve got a new book by Liz Prince coming up that’s really cute. Johnny Boo, which is James Kochalka’s new kids’ book, we really are looking forward to.

I think we do have a book that could be really huge, and it’s Alex Robinson’s third book. Alex Robinson is someone who came to the table, when we brought him into the Top Shelf family, with a giant fanbase, pre-existing, because of the serialization of Box Office Poison. Then we did Box Office Poison, big, one of our best perennial sellers. Couple years later, Tricked comes out, same thing. Big, big sales. The first printing was gone instantly, which was fucking great news. I think with Too Cool to be Forgotten, his new book, I think the same thing is gonna happen, except now, with the publicity machine that we have and the fact that we finally are working six months ahead, meaning the book’s done now and we’ve got six months before it’s scheduled to come out, we can actually roll that out like a real publisher does, instead of last minute. And I think that book’s gonna be really big.

Oh, Timothy Sievert’s new book. He’s a new guy on the scene, Timothy Sievert. It’s a book called That Salty Air. Extremely beautiful, haunting, melodic narrative with gorgeous art. I really can’t wait to see that in print. That’s a gorgeous book. We’re starting to roll that out right now. And then we’re gonna do some promotion on, this is not a 2008 book, but we’re really pimping Matt Kindt’s Superspy, because we want that to at least get a nomination for graphic novel of the year at the Eisners for calendar year 2007.

WO: As someone who studied Political Science in college, I gotta ask you about Veeps for the election year.

BW: Veeps is a book written by a guy named Bill Kelter, who is an absolute psychotic fanatic for the Office of the Vice President, seriously obsessed. And it’s basically non-fiction, non-comics. It’s going to be a hardcover and it’s the history of Vice Presidents throughout American history. Each entry will have a hand-drawn portrait of each Vice President by Wayne Shellabarger, with text written by Bill, a brief history of their time in office, with anecdotes about the absurdity of politics in American culture going back to day one.

WO: Yeah, the backups in Apocalypse Nerd, with the “Founding Fathers Funnies” covered some of that, and those were wonderful.

BW: Yeah, exactly the same kind of stuff. Real absurdist. And then about two thirds of the entries will have a single spot illustration drawn by Wayne as well that illustrates a really absurd anecdote. The most obvious one is the last chapter, Dick Cheney shooting a guy in the face with a shotgun.

WO: And then his family apologizing for it causing Dick Cheney trouble.

BW: Yeah, exactly. And that’s a great anecdote to illustrate what the book is about. And we have some big plans to roll this out.

WO: That’s pretty much everything. Is there anything else you wanted to throw in?

BW: No, I just appreciate it.

WO: We’ll call that it, then. Thanks a lot.

And thanks again, for the interview and everything else. On a personal note, the end of 2007 saw my internship at Top Shelf formally end, making this “exit interview” only the most recent of a long list of favors and helpful advice from Brett. Looks like I’m on my own again (any comics editorial departments need a new assistant?). The upshot is, now that it’s not a conflict of interest, expect to see the occasional Top Shelf book reviewed here on the Wright Opinion.

As usual, the interview was transcribed by myself and copy-edited by the participants.


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5 Responses to “Ringing in 2008 with Top Shelf’s Brett Warnock”

  1. screech Says:

    I’m glad to hear that Top Shelf is planning an Absolute edition of LOEG and that it will maintain the look of the previous editions.

  2. Journalista - the news weblog of The Comics Journal » Blog Archive » Jan. 22, 2008: You’re aiming for readers Says:

    […] Brendan Wright speaks with Top Shelf co-publisher Brett […]

  3. Collected Comics Library Podcast and Blog; News and Reviews on all sorts of Comic Book Collected Editions; Don't be fooled by imitators! Says:

    […] Wright has an extensive Q&A up with Top Shelf’s Brett Warnock that covers a lot of ground, including the third League of Extraordinary Gentlemen book — and […]

  4. Rob Says:

    Really lengthy (for the net anyway) and entertaining interview. Brett’s enthusiasm is infectious (and not in an Ebola sort of way).

  5. Blog@Newsarama » Publisher Q&A: Brett Warnock Says:

    […] Wright has an extensive Q&A up with Top Shelf’s Brett Warnock that covers a lot of ground, including the third League of Extraordinary Gentlemen book: WO: So […]

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